An Exorcism in Christian Fantasy-Land in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #128, Ch. 15)

An Exorcism in Christian Fantasy-Land in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #128, Ch. 15) February 3, 2020

Hi and welcome, everyone, to our regular off-topic Monday chat series, Lord Snow Presides! As is our habit, we return today to Frank Peretti’s 1986 bestselling book This Present Darkness. In this installment, a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ wages honest-to-goodness spiritual warfare–and he wins, because of course he does, because this is a cringe-inducing Christian fantasy based around the idea of Jesus Power being a real thing that actually really exists and actually really does stuff in the real world. Today, Lord Snow Presides over an imaginary battle for imaginary stakes that today’s fundagelicals still think is all in deadly earnest.

The Torment of Saint Anthony, by Michelangelo.
The Torment of Saint Anthony, Michelangelo, around 1487. The artist was 12 or 13 when he did this. When I was 12 or 13, I got upset cuz my mom wouldn’t take a photo of my high score on Space Invaders to send to Atari so I could win a t-shirt.

(Please click here to find the master list of previous This Present Darkness discussions. Also, any page numbers cited come from the 2003 paperback edition of the book.)

A Quick Basic Summary.

Just for anybody new to this whole series, Frank Peretti finally found someone to publish This Present Darkness (TPD) in 1986. It took a while to get off the ground, but then some big-name Christian stars endorsed it and sales skyrocketed. Nothing like it had ever been published before, so Peretti had the whole market to himself for a while.

Peretti had written other stuff in other genres before this book, but none of it had really done that well. But this? Oh, once the gravy train left the station it only accelerated. Peretti was really good at pandering to right-wing Christian readers. Any Christians who super-liked Rapture and Endtimes fantasizing and had tons of diagrams dissecting the “70 Weeks of Daniel” probably also owned a well-loved copy of TPD on their bookshelf.

Click to embiggen. This diagram is HUGELY popular in those circles.

In this scene I’m about to describe, something happens that these exact diagram-loving wingnut Christians would have immediately loved and adored beyond all reasoning. Nowhere in Christian bookshops at the time could they have possibly found anything like it.

Nobody had ever done this kind of writing.

Nobody at all had taken the most feverish Christian wingnut fantasies and written them into text format.

Most of all, nobody had ever created a sorta-kinda paradigm for how those fantasies might operate in the real world.

In a very real way, that paradigm represents Frank Peretti’s gift to fundagelicalism.

Jesus Power: A Definition.

Fundagelicals and hardline Catholics really think that their intense faith creates a sort of Jesus Aura around them. Further, onlookers can sense this aura too! They are either disgusted by it or drawn to it, loving or hating it depending on the situation and the interpretation of the Christians involved.

These same Christians think that their faith combines with their devotions, allowing them to access their imaginary friend’s miraculous powers at least temporarily. With Jesus Power, they can do all that glitzy, showy, crazy-looking miraculous stuff they keep claiming they totally do all the time (but never quite manage to document; these miracles go to another school–you won’t have met them). Obviously, only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can access Jesus Power. If one of those awful Christians In Name Only (CINOs) or cultural Christians do something that looks like Jesus Power, it’s probably just demons.

That’s what I mean when I use the term Jesus Power.

JESUS POWERS: ACTIVATE!

In last week’s LSP, I described this scene’s setting: a sordid-sounding arcade called The Cave. This arcade only exists in fundagelicals’ heaviest-slobbering fantasies. In his setting, Peretti placed demons lurking everywhere. They cling to patrons’ bodies and whisper in their ears.

I guess Frank Peretti thought of what happens here as an action scene. It’s certainly one of the first times we’ve seen Jesus Power on display against a human character. Other times, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ have used Jesus Power to do stuff in the imaginary world. But this time, Hank Busche has them using Jesus Power on an actual person.

While Hank Busche is looking around The Cave, aghast at all the stinky demons he senses everywhere, the angels are trying to play nicey-nice with those demons. When it starts looking like there might be a fight, though, Busche begins to pray.

And that gives the angels a surging of fightin’ power (like when Popeye eats spinach).

gif of popeye eating a can of spinach
Exactly like this.

That’s when the demons get nervous. Of the people in The Cave, though, we hear nothing.

But the angels didn’t bring Busche to the arcade just to freak the mundanes make demons cower at the sound of his prayers. Their angelic teammate Seth shows up a moment later with Ron Forsythe.

The Cross and the Galaga Machine.

Remember the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ couple who joined Busche’s church because their old church just wasn’t Jesus-y enough? Those were the Forsythes. This is their son. In their earlier scene with Busche, they lamented that Ron had lost his way. They think at the ceiling all the time to ask Jesus to magically fix him, which means of course making him a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.

In this scene, Ron Forsythe is clearly in bad shape. The angels can see no fewer than three demons clinging to the young man. He doesn’t look much better to Hank Busche. Ron talks like he’s higher than a Tibetan prayer kite, and Peretti’s description of his appearance makes the young man sound like he loiters around truck-stop parking lots to earn his meth money.

And now, just like Jesus-magic, the two run into each other in a video arcade! (See endnote for alternate interpretation.)

Peretti could have arranged this meeting anywhere. There was literally no reason to have it here.  Indeed, Busche only gets there through literal deus ex machina. He and Ron don’t even really stay there long. It’s just a testament to Peretti’s unfathomable laziness as a writer that the scene involves an arcade at all.

(Frank Peretti went to college briefly at UCLA. There, he studied English and screenwriting. I guess he was out witnessing whenever those classes convened.)

The Qbert-Driven Life.

When Ron enters the scene, Busche immediately decides that Jesus meant for him to be here. He introduces himself to the very confused young man. While they talk, the angels and demons bicker like unhappily-married couples. Like so much of this book, it’s unintentionally hilarious (p. 151):

“Divination,” said Triskal, identifying one of the demons.

Divination clung to Ron with needle-sharp talons and hissed, “And what is your business with us?”

“The lad,” said Krioni.

“You can’t tell us what to do!” another demon squawked, its fists stubbornly clenched.

“Rebellion?” Krioni asked.

The demon did not deny it. “He belongs to us.”

I half expected one of the demons to start whining that the angels never took them anywhere fun anymore.

An Invitation That Isn’t Suspish At All. Nope. Not At All.

The angels decide to move Busche and his target out of The Cave–away from all those other demons.

One tells the other, “Let’s get them out of here.” They never tell the pastor to leave the arcade, but Busche responds to their conversation thusly (p. 151):

Hank touched Ron on the shoulder and said, “Can we step outside where we can visit for a minute?”

Divination and Rebellion spoke together, “What for?”

Ron protested, “What for?”

Hank just led him gently, “Come on,” and they went out the backdoor.

Yeah, the back door that all of these places had that let kids at arcades just vanish without anyone seeing them or caring. Peretti shat out this book well after Etan Patz’ disappearance horrified America, but you’d never guess it.

Also, in the real world Ron would absolutely have taken this suggestion as an invitation to “do sex” (to borrow Peretti’s own phrasing from p. 149) or buy drugs. But here, Ron just placidly follows along.

“Visiting” in the Alley.

Once Hank Busche gets his victim into the alley, he gets to work on him in earnest.

Very quickly, the scene turns into a real live exorcism!

Whoa, dude!

In response, Ron Forsythe begins to chew scenery in a way that’s familiar to horror-movie audiences the world over. He exhibits bizarre, antisocial behavior, talks in alternating weird accents, and between refusals of prayers begs Busche to pray for him.

This is all normal in fundagelical-land. See, when exorcism targets refuse the prayers of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, the demons are prompting them to do that. They hate prayers like movie vampires hate garlic, crosses, and holy water. The demons fight to keep their victims’ spirits under control. In turn, the victims feel drawn to the Christian exorcists’ Jesus Aura, so the victims (according to folklore) will frequently break through that demonic control to beg for help.

Thus, it’s perfectly normal, accepted, and expected that an exorcism victim will alternately push away the exorcist and then beg for help and prayers.

If the victim never begs for help, that just means the demons have an extra-strong hold on that person–which means the exorcism has to get extra intense. This paring-away of victims’ bodily autonomy and gaslighting routine is a big part of why I get really tetchy about exorcisms.

Jesus Power #1: Telepathy.

When Busche begins his exorcism, he uses Jesus Power to learn the names of the three demons infesting Ron Forsythe. You can bet fundagelical readers loved that bit. They think Jesus totally feeds them information about their victims–and that he does this all the time. It’s probably one of the most basic and elemental aspects of Jesus Power.

Sometimes you hear fundagelicals call this form of telepathy “a word from the Lord.” They go up to others and tell them, “I have a word from the Lord for you!” And the other person is supposed to drop everything, listen, and take heed. I personally saw this happen about once every weekend while I was Pentecostal.

In addition to being a person-to-person admonishment or bit of advice or rah-rah, it often takes the form of a “prophecy” offered to an entire group.

This form of telepathy is, strangely, completely indistinguishable from basic cold reading techniques and the personal opinions of the person offering it.

How to Exorcise Someone.

Here, Frank Peretti uses this divine telepathy as a way to feed Hank Busche the names of the three demons possessing Ron Forsythe. Then Busche launches into a very formal-sounding prayer to evict them (p. 152):

He already had his hand on Ron, so he started praying very gently. “Lord Jesus, I pray for Ron; please touch him, Lord, and get through to his mind, and set him free from these spirits that are hanging on to him.”

The spirits clung to Ron like spoiled brats and whined at Hank’s prayer. Ron moaned and shook his head some more. He tried to get up, then he sat down again and held Hank’s arm.

The Lord spoke to Hank again, and Hank had a name. “Sorcery, let go of him in the name of Jesus.”

Ron squirmed on the bench and cried out as if stuck with a knife. Hank thought Ron would squeeze his arm off.

But Sorcery obeyed. He whined and hollered and spit, but he obeyed, fluttering away into the nearby trees.

Ron gave an anguished sigh and looked at Hank with eyes full of pain and desperation. “C’mon, c’mon, you’re doing it!”

The next two demons, Divination and Rebellion, leave in similar fashion.

This cringeworthy scene sounds so painfully familiar to me. Biff pulled this same routine after he supposedly got exorcised. For many years, in fact, Christian leaders have primed their flocks to know how to respond to this situation and how the victims are supposed to act.

Rebellion takes a little prodding from both Busche and the angels, but eventually that demon leaves too (he heads with his demonic pals to The Cave to find new hosts). At the end, Ron looks exhausted and twitchy. He declares, “Yeah, yeah, he’s out.”

Hooray Team Jesus!

Singing Him to Sleep, After the Loving.

Afterward, Busche feels awed and fascinated. But Ron sounds like he needs a cigarette and a power nap (p. 153):

Hank hung on to Ron’s hand and waiting, watching and praying until he knew what else to do. This was all so incredible, so fascinating, so frightening, but so necessary. This must be the Lord’s Lesson Number Two in Spiritual Combat; Hank knew he was learning something he would have to know to win this battle.

Ron was changing before Hank’s very eyes, relaxing, breathing easier, his eyes returning to a normal, down-to-earth gaze.

Hank finally said a very soft “Amen,” and asked, “Are you okay, Ron?”

Ron answered right away, “Yeah, I feel better. Thanks.” He looked at Hank and smiled a weak, almost apologetic smile. “It’s funny. No, it’s neat. It was just today I was thinking I needed somebody to pray for me. I just couldn’t go on with all the stuff I’ve been into.”

Conversion doesn’t really cure anybody of anything, and that’s just the brutal truth of the matter. If Ron’s into something addictive or dangerous, he might find his fight for freedom from it is actually only just beginning.

But this is Christian Fantasy-Land, not Reality-Land, and here, Jesus Power has real, lasting, and powerful effects on people.

And Now, the Sales Pitch.

At the end of the scene, Busche tells him that his parents and his church are thinking very hard at the ceiling for him. The idea that Busche and his church might be praying for him impresses Ron.

Busche tells him that his congregation has “a special love for each other,” and Ron is terribly intrigued by the idea of being around people like that. This scene truly does represent a Christian fantasy, doesn’t it? Even in the 1980s, most folks thought fundagelicals were deeply unpleasant people.

Busche has also forgotten all about the whole church vote–when just-under-half of his congregation voted to fire him! Nothing we’ve read so far about this congregation speaks to them being loving as a group. But Busche is selling something now, and salespeople-for-Jesus lie freely and liberally about everything under the sun to score a sale.

So the men begin talking about everything under the sun. Here’s where I laughed out loud–and I bet you can tell exactly what sentence did it (p. 154):

Ron began to notice that no matter what the subject or the issue, Hank had a way of bringing Jesus into it. Ron didn’t mind. This wasn’t like a phony sales pitch; Hank Busche really believed that Jesus was the answer to everything.

So, after talking about everything else with Jesus brought into it, Ron let Hank talk about Jesus, just Jesus. It wasn’t dull. [<—– yep, CC lost it right here] Hank could really get excited about Him.

We knew this was Christian Fantasy-Land, but now we appear to have landed on the shores of Christian Pipe Dreams.

The Ashton of Their Hearts.

When Christians wade into businesses like arcades or strip joints or adult bookstores or pot dispensaries or whatever it is that they think Jesus said was ickie that week, that’s not how things shake out. Ever. Sure, they might encounter a vulnerable person at a vulnerable time, but these grandiose displays rarely end with an exorcism and long, meaningful talks about the Christian’s imaginary friend.

My then-husband Biff often tried to do this exact same act. It’s part of a fundagelical fanatic’s makeup. It rarely worked in reality like my tribe imagined it would in their heads. Heck, even our pastor’s family couldn’t put up with Biff doing it one time. But a lot of people really believed these mountebanks possessed the real-deal Jesus Power.

Maybe that’s why This Present Darkness exerted such an alluring draw to the millions of fundagelicals like Biff. It gave them permission to act out and disregard the feedback of the people they bothered. It showed them exactly how their posturing and bombast in real life played out in their imaginary battlegrounds. And it showed them winning all those battles.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over This Present Darkness itself: a realm where wingnuts’ wildest dreams finally came “true” for the first time.

NEXT UP: A megachurch ignored ALL the red flags. And shockingly, they’re now in the middle of a huge scandal. Join me tomorrow as we examine fake inclusion in fundagelicalism! 


Endnotes.

Alternate Scene: I can totally see Hank Busche going there to play him some video games, getting caught by “a sinner” and called out, and frantically coming up with a reason for being there: Dude, he was just there to pray for all the sinners! He was doing research on evil video games so he could wage more effective SPEERCHUL WARFARE! Even when I was Christian, I heard Christians offer up these exact same sorts of excuses. I didn’t believe them then, but somebody must or they wouldn’t keep trying it, right? (Back to the post!!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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